“We are descended from a long, strong, line of women, and we are handing down a story…listen child, to a story–soon to be yours to tell…” Intones the virtuosic female assemblage who are part of “Dessa Rose”—the bold new musical making its “LA Premiere” at “The Chromolume Theatre” in Los Angeles California. The winner of the Outer-Critics Circle Award for “Outstanding Off-Broadway Musical”, this sweeping tale of freedom, friendship and inchoate feminism and emerging abolitionism, received its New York premiere at Lincoln Center in 2005. Featuring Music by Stephen Flaherty with a Book and Lyrics by Lynn Ahrens, “Dessa Rose” is based on the novel by Sherley Anne Williams, which takes its name after one of her lead characters–a spirited young runaway slave by the name of “Dessa Rose”. Set against the seething backdrop of the antebellum South of the 1840’s in and around Charleston, South Carolina, the story follows her travails and fortuitous friendship with “Ruth”–a young white woman (who herself is an abandoned wife and mother) spanning their journey to acceptance in the midst of those tumultuous times, as each lady, in her 80’s when the show begins, essentially ‘Narrates’ the events and recollections of one another’s lives. “I hope you never will forget what it cost us to ‘own’ our own selves,” “Dessa” concludes as the journey that was her life begins to unfold.
“Listen how it came to be,” they sing, “two women—traveling onto glory.” To even the most casual observation this is a rich and ambitious work–fast-moving, far-reaching and certainly complex enough; thrillingly, the crew at “The Chromolume” rise to every challenge it puts forth, and they succeed on just about all counts. The action jumps forward and back at regular intervals, however, it’s this exact intricacy of Ahrens book that also makes one invigoratingly aware that here is a very special—even revelatory–musical they’re seeing! Integrating numerous extended musicalized sequences, Flaherty’s score itself frequently boasts an equally dramatic and melodic multiplicity, making use of many styles–among them, Blues, Folk and Gospel, in addition to some good old-fashioned, “Vaudevillian” song-and dance. Ahren’s and Flaherty also do admirable service to Ms. William’s original tome, staying true to it, and honoring its historical accuracy (even if it might make for some rough going in parts for modern audiences.) Forsaking a traditionally ‘happy’ ending over one that is more honest, authentic, and even a little heart-tugging, have no doubt though, before the final bows occur, our heroines most emphatically do find that friendship has become kinship—a sisterhood that time and distance cannot diminish, (which in the final analysis is far more inspiring.)
With much of the first section dedicated to “Dessa’s” back-story, the elderly Ruth begins by recollecting, “It was 1847 near as I can figure,”, where upon we find the fifteen-year-old Dessa has found love and passion with a young field hand named “Kaine”—“a boy like sunshine and thunder” who woos her with the ‘Banja’ he made himself. (“Slavery didn’t do away with Love; Not Love nor Heroism,” Ruth reminds us; “It provided occasions for their expressions!”) When Kaine gets into an argument with one of the “Master’s” kin, he is killed when hit with a shovel. Soon after, pregnant with “Kaine’s” child, Dessa herself kills her Master while trying to fight off his attempt at raping her, whereupon she‘s branded, sent to jail and labeled “The Devil Woman”. While there, a writer named “Adam Nehemiah” comes to “record some observations” about her and to try to figure out why she ‘chose’ to do what she did. Facing the gallows once her child is born, she takes advantage of his attempts at pity when she convinces him to loosen her leg irons enabling her to escape. Meanwhile, now an Octogenarian herself, “Dessa” introduces us to nineteen-year-old “Miss Ruth Elizabeth Carson—a ‘proper’ Charleston Belle”, and begins to relate how the girl was forced by her mother to behave under an oppressive code of conduct, which she tried to flee by marrying a local “Gentleman Farmer” named “Bertie Sutton”. For a little while their wedded bliss seems uninterrupted at his farm, “The Glen”, until he started staying away—often for months at a time. (Unbeknownst to her he was actually an habitual gambler and womanizer, until one day, he simply never returned.) That’s when, whether by design or happen stance, the desolate Ruth begins to take in runaway slaves, at first with the idea of their trading work in her husband’s absence for their temporary sanctuary–these include two of “Dessa’s” friends named “Nathan” and “Harker”. Upon her escape from Jail, half-starved and ready to give birth, Dessa herself arrives at “The Glen” where Ruth is immediately called on to deliver her baby girl. Regardless, Dessa remains rebellious and untrusting of this stranger whom she contemptuously calls “Miss Lady”, and when Ruth attempts to name the infant, Dessa defiantly vows “I will only name her when she’s free!”
The fairly small cast take on numerous parts—some, while relatively brief (like Ruth’s wayward Husband “Bertie” and Dessa’s lover, “Kaine”,) are still impactful nonetheless. Happily too, this production is loaded with ‘large’ group endeavors, prominent among them “Fly Away”. Staged as a classic “Spiritual”, this affords some awesome ensemble harmonizing which commence in a series of A-Capella exultations of “Good News!” Taken up at the outset by a trio consisting of Kymberly Stewart, Ken Maurice Purnell and Ambrey Benson, eventually the whole cast joins in, until “Dessa” takes over for the concluding verses. This easily stands out as a Highlight right in the middle of the first act. After the break, “Just Over The Line” is another rousing full-company achievement that gives rise to some stunning vocal fireworks. Led by the incredible voices of the two leading ladies, at this early stage of their association “Dessa” and “Ruth” are discovered openly venting their outright dislike of one another (with Nathan caught—literally–in between them as they trade barbs while he sits driving the wagon they’ve all piled into.) Indeed, owing to the buoyant and bouncy chorale work that follows, what is basically an expositionary number, is instead vibrantly transformed in to something so much greater! Shortly after, “In The Bend Of My Arm” is a dreamy interlude that reveals more insight to five of the key characters in terms of their secret longings, loneliness and yearnings: “Oh Lord, I’m so tired of being lonely; oh Lord, I’m so tired of being afraid,” Ruth croons while in the arms of Nathan–the man she clearly desires (and who could make her happy at last) but due to the severe prohibitions of the time—particularly as they concerned inter-racial relationships—she straight up can’t have! “Dessa” in the meantime, dreams she’s in the embrace of her lost “Kaine”, and of the life they could have made together; then, just as unexpectedly, they’re joined by “Adam” who likewise sings of his longing for his own beloved, “Susannah”. Combined, this unlikely quintet blend to make some lush and dulcet ear-candy.
Stepping into the title role of “Dessa Rose” Shaunté Tabb positively prevails thanks in no small part to the total conviction she endows her portrayal with, not to mention her magnificent voice that completely fills (and thrills) the entire auditorium! This power–and even stateliness, is demonstrated right from the opening with her part in “We Are Descended” as the now advanced in years “Dessa” recalls her time as a slave and the woman who helped her move beyond it all. Then, with “Something Of My Own” she exhibits a touch more vitality, transforming before our eyes into the young and flirtatious 15-year-old “Dessa”—a lass overflowing with the desires and convictions of every girl her age. Later, at the close of Act One she reminds us all over again just how compelling her vocal abilities truly are (and most decidedly when they’re teamed with her formidable acting capabilities) with the potent Act Break: “Twelve Children”. Sung to Dessa’s newborn daughter in homage to her own mother, she celebrates a woman named “Rose” and the dozen children she had (Dessa being the youngest) over the course of her life in servitude: “Some sold away. Some passed away. Some ran…Twelve children brought from her body, all gone but one; I tell you these names the way my mammy told these names, lest her poor children pass from livin’ memory.” Matching her each step in energy, vigor and amazement is Abby Carlson as “Ruth”. She too, is in fine possession of a deeply expressive voice and superior acting ability, and these she puts to superlative use in every scene she appears. Forsaken by her husband “Bertie”, her wistful soliloquy, “At The Glen” is touching and sweet—where even the melody is infused with false hope, uncertainty, and ultimately, despondency. Despite not knowing where he is, she tries to write a letter to her husband to tell him of everything that’s happened for the duration of his long absence: “You’ve been gone these seven months, and God knows where you are…Northfork or Savannah…or Charleston…Bertie? Things gone on these seven months—well, things have gone too far; ‘Mammy’ died at Christmas, so sudden Bertie; You been gone these seven months —don’t you miss me now and then? Oh Bertie, it’s so lonesome…at the Glen” she laments until even she eventually comes to realize, he won’t be returning home soon—or ever. Act Two picks up as Ruth is finding friendship with Nathan, one of the runaway slaves she takes in (“he was companionable and funny” we’re told;) over time this general amity evolves into something more, and for the time, poignant, leading her into the adventure of her life.
As “Nathan”, Mykell Barlow bestows his own considerable voice and stage presence into the role, and although “Nathan” doesn’t really come into his own until the second half, once he does, it’s remarkable to see (not to mention hear!) Add to it, “Nathan” is the one who can get the ladies (and all of them by extension) out of their troubles. “I got a plan that will take us away–far away from here…if you help us,” he tells Ruth, recalling “The Scheme” he and his former ‘Master’—a con man named “Mr. Crutch” used to play on gullible would-be slave owners to whom Nathan would be “sold” and then helped to escape before being ‘sold’ to the next lack-witted “mark” and so on. This prompts a fast-talkin’ Ragtime-inspired “Patter” song led by Barlow that launches the second act and ranks as a palpable post-intermission crowd-pleaser. Afterwards, his soothing and sensual ‘duet’ with Ruth, (as part of the larger quintet of “In The Bend Of My Arm”,) allows for a more serious side to Nathan to be seen, as he confides to her the very human reasons why the various runaway slaves are so willing to risk their very existence for even a minuscule chance of being free. She, in turn, draws strength from their determination—fueling her own resolve to gain her own kind of ‘freedom’ as well. Matt Mancuso also strikes all the right chords as the writer, “Adam Nehemiah”. In fact, his is an especially tricky role, as he initially gives the impression of being merely a mild-mannered reporter who, once he believes his basic ‘humanity’ has been betrayed, reacts (or, put more aptly, ‘over-reacts’) in a manner that’s the complete opposite of humane. Essentially, this sees him morphing into a fanatic Hell-bent on revenge to the subsequent cost of everything dear to him —not least of which being his impending marriage to his publishers’ comely socialite daughter “Susannah” (played by Margaret Berkowitz.) “Bloody tales are good for sales” he tells the jailer at the start of his jailhouse descant called “Ink” of his desire to interview “Odessa” (as he constantly mistakenly refers to her) for a book he’s writing about ‘rogue slaves’ who kill their masters: “This here is paper—ink goes on the paper, lastin’ after you’re gone” he explains to his incarcerated interviewee; “I’ll write your words and they will last forever…time’s tickin’ on.”
Claire Buchignani also makes her mark as Ruth’s ‘oh, so proper’–and demanding Mother; “a woman,” we’re advised early on, “with expectations”. Although her stage time is portioned out in relatively brief allotments, Buchignani plays this Southern Matriarch with a shade more in common with Lillian Helman’s ‘Foxy’ “Regina Giddens” than any of the slightly more ‘sympathetic’ Tennessee Williams’ Granddames from below the Mason-Dixon line like Blanche DuBois or Amanda Wingfield. Her opening salvo, “Ladies (Must Never)” furnishes a brilliant, if biting introduction, not only to the woman herself, but also to the stringent social protocols she holds herself and her hapless daughter to, along with the unflinching and unforgiving ‘regulations’ ladies of a certain social standing were subjected to throughout this era. (“Ladies will go far—as long as you know who you are!” she gloats.) She then follows this up in Act Two with “Ten Petticoats” as she shamelessly sings the praises of (what else?) Always having no less than ten petticoats and three corsets on hand at all times–and most definitely when one travels! Contrasting her is Kymberly Stewart who, on occasion, is astounding in her own right in multiple roles, most notably, “Ruth’s” kindhearted ‘Mammy’ “Dorcas”, “Dessa‘s” mother “Rose”, and the Sheriff’s trusted “Aunt Chloe”—a woman with the reputation of never uttering a lie, but who makes a crucial exception when “Dessa” needs it most. As “Dorcas” she offers Ruth the affection and encouragement her mother will not, trying to make her young charge see past all the superficial rules placed on her gender, and into who she can be–with or without them! Stewart also imparts an amazing rendition of “White Milk and Red Blood”—investing it with a pristine delivery combined with prodigious depth and sincerity, making it a bona-fide showstopper late in the proceedings. Very worthy of note also is Bradley Alan Turner who is dashingly handsome with a ‘smooth-as-butter’ song styling reminiscent of Luther Vandross, which he puts to splendid use in his depiction of Dessa’s murdered lover (and the father of her child) “Kaine”, while Ken Maurice Purnell too, steadfastly confers terrific support as the boyishly likable “Harker”.
Director James Esposito once again manages to make innovative use of the modest auditorium making it feel scores bigger for the humongous story that is being recounted within it. He also wisely keeps up the pacing while working in conjunction with choreographer Michael Marchak, and together they interject small but significant moments of dance in the logical intersections where movement is most fitting. Counted among these are ‘Bertie’s Waltz’–a lively but elegant little interlude that serves to illustrate the rapid ‘courtship’ of Ruth and the conspicuously ‘gallant’ husband who will soon desert her, over and above applying comparable bits of motion into the longer “plot” numbers to help convey the passage of time. This is illustrated so effectively during “Terrible” (wherein “Adam”, his search growing ever more desperate, and him becoming more and more unhinged, questions miscellaneous gatherings of slaves as to the whereabouts of his ‘quarry’.) Then, as part of “It’s A Pleasure”, Marchak incorporates yet another pleasant, if fleeting, dance break as Ruth drunkenly prepares to work her ‘charms’ on another male “Dupe”. Furthermore serving as the Scenic Designer, Esposito favors a more subdued and eclectic design for the sets, utilizing dusty flats of varying wood patterns with worn stairs covered by drab netted moss-cloths, but they do the trick and summon the required mood quite well. Kara McLeod’s Costumes also favor the simple approach but successfully recall the times and social status (or hoped for status) of those wearing them, while also granting her a few subtle touches of ingenuity that similarly get their point delightfully across if one is sharp-eyed enough to catch them. A prime example of this is Ruth’s ‘scarlet’ red dress and crimson silk shawl (scandalous for the times) once she begins to aid (and in due course grows to excel) in the gang’s confidence game to help them all earn enough money to ‘buy’ their collective liberty. Moreover, situated upstage concealed behind the central flats, Musical Director Daniel Yokomizo oversees the three-piece combo that supplies all of the music the story absolutely ‘gallop’s on, while also serving as the pianist to boot. This trio may remain unseen, but rest assured their substantial contributions are keenly felt (and appreciable) with the downbeat of every musical note sounded.
A genuine gold-medal worthy “find” of a musical that shouldn’t be missed by anyone eager to experience a daring and dynamic piece of theater, “Dessa Rose” ‘officially’ opened on Friday, February 2nd, and will play for four weekends through Sunday, February 25th, 2018. Showtimes are Friday and Saturday evenings at 8:00 PM, with Sunday Matinees at 3:00 PM, at “The Chromolume Theatre” at “The Attic” located at 5429 W. Washington Boulevard (between the 10 Freeway and Hauser Boulevard), in Los Angeles, CA. Tickets may be obtained on-line by logging onto: http://www.crtheatre.com or via phone by calling: (323) 205-1617.
Production Photos by Tyler Vess, Courtesy of Ken Werther at Ken Werther Publicity (www.kenwerther.com) and James Esposito at “The Chromolume Theatre”; Special Thanks to Ken Werther, James Esposito, Nance Peters, Michael Marchak, Daniel Yokomizo and to the Cast & Crew Of “The Chromolume Theatre” at “The Attic’s” 2018 Los Angeles Premiere Of “Dessa Rose” For Making This Story Possible.